USDA technology transfer report discusses biofuel research

By Erin Voegele | July 25, 2017

The USDA has released its annual technology transfer report, announcing its research generated 244 new inventions and 109 patent applications during fiscal year 2016.

The 559-page report outlines the public release and adoption of information, tools and solutions developed through USDA’s agricultural research efforts, collaborative partnerships and formal Cooperative Research and Development Agreements. According to the USDA, the information contained in the report shows how the USDA’s efforts have translated into public-private partnerships that help American agriculture and other businesses complete in the world marketplace.

The report includes information on several research initiatives related to ethanol, biomass and bioenergy.

In Illinois, USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists worked with partners to develop a new strain of yeast with a unique cellulolytic enzyme that efficiently breaks down biofeedstock, shows resistance to inhibitory compounds, and eliminates the need to add other enzymes to the production process. According to the report, the strain could reduce enzyme costs in cellulosic ethanol production by approximately 35 cents per gallon. The technology is expected to reduce risks and increase profitability in industrial biorefineries that produce ethanol and other products.

In a separate project, ARS scientists engineered a yeast strain from a Brazilian ethanol plant that was found to tolerate inhibitors to convert plant xylose to ethanol. When the yeast strain was used to convert hydrolyzed switchgrass into cellulosic ethanol, it produced 30 percent more ethanol than the original parent strain.

Another project in Illinois, identified a strain of yeast that can convert inulin, a major polysaccharide derived from coffee processing waste, into cellulosic ethanol.

ARS researchers in Illinois also worked with partners to demonstrate the feasibility of directly converting extracted plan sugars into oils that could be used to make biodiesel or biobased jet fuel. The process is price-competitive with petroleum-based oils because it extracts sugars from plants without using enzymes. According to the report, preliminary findings suggest the technology could reduce cellulosic ethanol production costs by 16 to 20 percent.

ARS scientists in Maryland and Illinois purified four lytic enzymes that process antibacterial activity and mitigate the effects of contamination in cellulosic ethanol production. The report states that treatments with each enzyme reduced the concentration of lactic acid bacteria by 1,000-fold and increased ethanol yield nearly 10-fold in infected fermentations. The findings indicate that lytic enzymes can be used as an alternative to antibiotics for preventing and controlling bacterial contamination during biorefining.

The report also highlights research related to distillers grains. ARS researchers in Nebraska conducted three beef cattle feedlot studies to measure and compare sulfur gas emissions from cattle feedlot manures and soils where cattle consumed older corn-based diets or newer diets containing distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS). The research found that sulfur gas emissions from DDGS manures and soils were two- to five-fold greater, with fresh manure being the strongest source. According to the report, producers can use the findings to mitigate sulfur emissions from manure by reducing sulfuric acid used during ethanol production or by more intensive manure management in cattle feedlot pens.

In South Dakota, ARS researchers worked with university collaborators to examine how biochar application affected the availability of the herbicides atrazine and 2,4-D in soil, and how biochar effects the speed of plant germination. The research found soils amended with biochar produced from corn stover, switchgrass and Ponderosa pine retained five to 10 times more herbicide than untreated soils, with only modest differences due to biochar type. Plants that are typically affected by these herbicides germinated more rapidly when biochar was present. According to the report, the data shows amending soils with even small amounts of biochar can increase herbicide retention in soils, but at the same time reduce the herbicide’s potential effectiveness against weeds.

A full copy of the report, titled “Fiscal Year 2016 Annual Report on Technology Transfer,” can be downloaded from the USDA website.